Reviews Performance Published 30 January 2012

Lydia Pape: Magnetized Space

Serpentine Gallery ⋄ 7th December 2011 - 19th February 2012

The performativity of language: on Pape and the gaze.

A. E. Dobson

Lydia Pape, Roda dos Prazeres (Wheels of Pleasure), 2011. Installation view. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2011 © Projeto Lygia Pape and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

Moustache-bristles glisten with saliva. An ice-lolly slides in and out between soft, puckered lips.

Thus begins a retrospective of Brazilian artist Lygia Pape (1927-2004) – a founding member of the Neo-Concrete movement that sought to reconcile art with everyday life. Few would accuse Eat Me (1975) of lacking in that. The film greets visitors with a succession of huge, eroticised mouths – wet tongues gyrating to the strains of soul-infused funk.

Slogans are chanted in Portuguese: is this gluttony, we are asked, or lust? Would we like to buy some beans in stock, or perhaps a tin of soup? The message, at first, seems curt: in all its guises, consumption is a sexualised activity; marketing manipulates the consumer by appealing to its animal instincts. So far, so Frankfurt School – much more interesting is how the piece has been edited together.

The pace and rhythm of the film is guided by a mathematical formula – Pape has spliced her imagery according to algorithms. Something in this evidently appeals to our psychology. Perhaps we are alert to proportionality, however abstract. The implication is that our viewing pleasure is mediated by something hard-wired and subconscious – that the neurons now illuminating the surface of our brains are plotted according to a predetermined pattern.

But if our responses are so predictable, our sense of self is under threat. After all, the expression of sexuality appears to us the most autonomous act in our repertoire; by this reckoning we are expressing less our individualistic desire than the sum of our natures. Pape does not seek to frighten us. Relationships are a form of social exchange, conducted in a coded environment – to love is to consume; to be loved, consumed. This tension provides a leitmotif for the entire show.

The exhibition takes its name from far less cannibalistic fare. Magnetized Space (1968-1995) is represented by three photographs. A dense crowd has formed around a street performance, everyone jostling to find an unimpeded view. But this is a public event, staged in a communal area and governed by unspoken codes of behaviour. These innate laws find expression in natural geometry – the spectators are distributed like filings around a magnet. In order to balance the altruistic and solipsistic imperatives, the mass has formed a near-perfect circle.

This sense of equilibrium is clear only in the more oblique, topographical image. Alongside, the shape dissolves either into disparate parts, or into an impenetrable mass of bodies. Whilst this contrast may be seen to exemplify the tension experienced by the audience within the triptych, it is true also of the audience outside– walking the galleries of the Serpentine, functioning in the world beyond. Pape encourages us to consider the problem of subject position: the influence of our own situation in the generation of meaning.

This theme is picked up elsewhere. An early Super-8 recording of Divisor (Divider) (1967) shows a protrusion of heads from beneath a single, enormous blanket. The shrouded throng is utterly unified – complete in itself, its shape and character is the sum of its parts. The contribution of every participant is vital, but none the more so. An ideal of equality is therefore upheld, but not without irony; the power of each contribution is recognised but downplayed and so, to a degree, equality becomes problematic – even oppressive.

A similar dynamic pervades Livro do Tempo (Book of Time) (1961-63). This striking installation is composed of three hundred and sixty-five wooden panels that descend the wall like Space Invaders. Each bas relief is formed of an identical quantity of wood, and coloured from a strictly limited palette. They may have begun life in the same dimensions, but each has been mashed-up to create an apparently singular, unique pattern.

At first the mood seems celebratory: we rejoice in their difference. Yet as we continue to watch, relationships unfold; we notice similarities; the whole becomes repetitious, monotonous, until eventually the idea of individuality seems hopelessly over-determined.

Perhaps this is a statement about the homogenising tendency of language. The panels are arranged like script and invested with a confounding inner-logic. But Pape’s choice of title also challenges our sense of time. Reality here is relentless – we are caught in a Beckettian, perpetual present. Movement arises from stasis. Flow is suggested between each unit as our eye scans the lines, a contradiction that denounces our notion of progress as illusionary.

Tempro’s companion piece consolidates this reading. Livro da Arquitectura (Book of Architecture) (1959-60) is a horizontal arrangement of twelve plates – a calendar, if you will – purporting to chart stylistic progression through the ages. Each epoch loudly proclaims itself, but any meaningful distinction between them is lost in the clamour.

At the centre of all this, surrounded by darkness, sits Ttéia (Web) (1976) – a room-sized installation that brings these notions of time, space and subjectivity to a climax. The piece is composed of nine pillars of thread, stretched tight from floor to ceiling. Low-wattage light is cushioned by the string as it falls, making each column appear radiant, glowing from within.

We can move freely around the work, which changes with every step. Structures overlap; individual cords move in and out of phase and become paler or more intense in colour; our sense of depth abandons us, the arrangement at once bearing down and plunging away. You may wonder where in all this you belong. But the moment passes when you realise: none of it would exist without you.


A. E. Dobson is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Lydia Pape: Magnetized Space Show Info


Produced by Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in collaboration with Projeto Lygia Pape and the Serpentine Gallery

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